HC Deb 26 June 2003 vol 407 cc1239-56

[Relevant document: The First Special Report from the Committee on Standards and Privileges, Session 2002-03, HC 516.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Prior to the main business, I shall make a short statement that I hope will be helpful to the House.

Before I call the Leader of the House to move motion No. 1, "Standards and Privileges", I would like to make clear how the debate will proceed. The debate on motion No. 1 will also cover the detailed proposals set out in motions Nos. 2 and 3. At the end of the debate, the Chair will put the questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on all three motions. Members wishing to ask questions or raise points about the Standing Order amendments in motion No. 2 or the provisions in motion No. 3 about the appointment of the Parliamentary Commissioner should do so in the course of their speech on motion No. 1.

2.43 pm
The Leader of the House of Commons (Peter Hain)

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of the Eighth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (Cm. 5663), the Response to that Report by the House of Commons Commission (HC 422), and the Second Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (HC 403); and agrees with the recommendation in paragraph 50 of that Report that, in appropriate cases, the House should impose a penalty of withholding a Member's salary for a specified period without suspending the Member. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Wicks committee, published its eighth report on standards of conduct in the House of Commons on 21 November last year. I am sure that I speak for the House in expressing my thanks to Sir Nigel Wicks and his committee for their thoughtful, thorough and evenhanded approach to this sensitive and politically-charged subject.

The Wicks committee found that standards in the House of Commons are generally high, and that the overwhelming majority of members seek to, and in practice do, uphold high standards of propriety. It found that the fundamental structure of the current system for regulating standards of conduct in the House of Commons is sound". Nevertheless, it considered that the current system had fallen short of delivering confidence in certain respects. The Government accept that analysis.

It is of the greatest importance that the conduct of Members of the House meets, and is seen to meet, the high standards expected by the Wicks committee, and also by our constituents. Lapses, however rare, are very damaging to public confidence in the House and in our parliamentary democracy. If lapses occur, and are not seen to be tackled with sufficient rigour, the effect is many times worse. Our system for regulating standards of conduct must be transparent, fair and effective.

The Committee on Standards and Privileges published its observations on the Wicks report's recommendations with its second report on 11 February. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and his Committee for the careful consideration that they have given to the Wicks report and for their positive proposals in response to the Wicks committee's 27 recommendations.

I will leave it to the Chairman of the Committee to explain its thinking and in what respects it has met the letter of the Wicks recommendations and in what respects, and for what reasons, it has offered some alternative way forward, meeting in a different way the spirit of the Wicks recommendations. The Government are content to accept the Committee's recommendations and I have tabled a motion to make the necessary changes to the Standing Orders to give them effect.

We have slightly diverged from the Committee's recommendations in only one respect. In paragraph 62, the Committee noted the inter-party understanding that its Chairman be drawn from the Opposition parties and recommended that in future it should be provided for, preferably by amendment of Standing Order No. 149. The Government regard that as a strong convention and we intend that the Chairman should continue to be drawn from the Opposition parties, as both the Standards and Privileges Committee and the Wicks committee have recommended. We agree with them, but it would be unprecedented to make that a requirement of the Standing Orders.

The Government have agreed—after some consideration, as it is unprecedented for Select Committees of the House—to the Wicks committee's recommendation that no one party should hold an overall majority on the Committee on Standards and Privileges. We accept the Standards and Privileges Committee's recommendation that that should be implemented gradually, by natural wastage, to avoid over-rapid change and loss of expertise. Subject to the agreement of the usual channels, and of the House, we intend to move towards a Committee of 10 Members, of whom five would be from the Government party and five from the Opposition parties.

Similarly, we agree to the recommendation that Parliamentary Private Secretaries should no longer serve on the Committee on Standards and Privileges. While there has been no suggestion that those members of the Committee who have served as PPSs have acted on the Committee with anything other than independence of mind, it is important to ensure that there can be no perception that the Committee's independence is compromised by proximity to Government. As the Committee recommended, it is our intention to achieve that change gradually.

The House of Commons Commission has considered the recommendations in the Wicks report, which apply to it: those relating to the status of the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and the terms and methods of his appointment. Its report was published on 11 February.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

The Leader of the House has just said that he hopes that the recommended changes to the balance of Committee membership and to PPS membership will be made gradually. I understand that, but can he tell us when he expects that process to be complete?

Peter Hain

There was no recommendation about that, but I think that it should be sooner rather than later. That would be in the spirit of the recommendations of both Committees. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees.

The Commission accepted the Wicks committee's recommendation that the Commissioner should be appointed for a non-renewable fixed term of between five and seven years—it suggests five—and that he should continue to be appointed by the House on the recommendation of the Commission. I see that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) is in his place.

Only one of the recommendations of the Wicks committee relates to a Government responsibility: recommendation 6 proposes that it should be an explicit requirement of the ministerial code that Members who are Ministers must co-operate with any investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, at all stages. The Government accept that recommendation. In fact, it was agreed prior to the Wicks report that an amendment should be made to the ministerial code to add an additional sentence at the end of section 1 to make it clear that Ministers must also comply at all times with the requirements that Parliament has itself laid on them as Members, including in particular the codes of conduct for their respective Houses. The amendment, which is already implemented, will be incorporated in the next published edition of the ministerial code.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

I wonder whether the Leader of the House could confirm to the House who is responsible for upholding the ministerial code. I have always assumed that it was the Prime Minister, but if it is a different answer perhaps at some stage in the debate it will be given to us.

Peter Hain

It will be the Prime Minister, obviously, as the hon. Gentleman suggested.

The first motion before us this afternoon—as well as taking note of the Wicks committee report, and of the Standards and Privileges Committee and commission responses—affirms that the House agrees with the recommendation of the Standards and Privileges Committee that, in appropriate cases, the House should impose a penalty of withholding a Member's salary for a specified period without suspending the Member.

The Wicks committee recommended that the House should introduce additional financial penalties without suspension, as a sanction for breach of the code of conduct. The Standards and Privileges Committee supported that, recommending—in paragraph 50—that the House should have the power, on a recommendation from the Committee, to withhold salary for a specified period from a Member found to have breached the code. If legislation were required, it looked to the Government to introduce it.

The legal advice obtained confirms that legislation is not necessary: the House has the power to withhold salary, and does so when Members are suspended. I understand that the Committee accepts that advice. Nevertheless, it is right that the House should be given the opportunity to affirm that it is content for this to be done in appropriate cases. It would seem very reasonable that the House should be able to impose this sanction—in very rare cases, I would hope—while allowing the Member to conduct his or her parliamentary business on behalf of his or her constituents.

The second motion on the Order Paper would make a number of changes to Standing Order No. 149 (Committee on Standards and Privileges) and to Standing Order No. 150 (Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards). These are to give effect to recommendations of the Standards and Privileges Committee and of the commission. An explanatory memorandum has been made available in the Vote Office to explain the effects of this somewhat complex motion, and how it relates to the Committee's and the Commission's recommendations.

The amendment to Standing Order No. 149 makes explicit the S and P Committtee's power to appoint legal advisers, in the light of the Wicks committee recommendation that it should appoint an outside legal adviser to assist it with its work on a regular basis. In respect of Standing Order No. 150, the new paragraph (2A) implements a recommendation of the Wicks committee that the Commissioner's role in the rectification procedure should be set out clearly.

The new paragraphs (2B) to (2G) implement the proposal by the Standards and Privileges Committee for an investigatory panel. New paragraph (2H) requires the Commissioner to make an annual report to the House, as recommended by the Wicks committee. I understand that the Commissioner plans to make his first annual report shortly.

The revised paragraph (3) strengthens the Commissioner's independence by setting out more specifically than in the existing paragraph the circumstances in which he may be dismissed, and the procedure that is to be followed to do so. There has been concern about the Commissioner's security of tenure and this has been seen as compromising his independence. The amendment seeks to allay that concern, while allowing a means of dismissal in case the Commissioner were to become unfit or unable to hold office.

Mr. McLoughlin

I have a slight concern about this and I should like to express it and ask the Leader of the House whether he may be going a bit too far here. At the moment, the only way that the Commissioner can be fired or dismissed is on a motion of the whole House. A similar motion would be required to get rid of, let us say, the Speaker of the House of Commons, should the House so wish to do. The proposals would make it much tougher to bring about the dismissal of the Commissioner. Is the Leader of the House really sure that that kind of toughening up is necessary?

Peter Hain

I think so, but this is really a matter on which the House should make a judgment. It would still be possible for the Commissioner to be removed, as the hon. Gentleman says, by resolution of the House, but only if there were clear and transparent grounds for concluding that the Commissioner was unfit to hold his office or unable to carry out his functions. I remind the House of the public's concern about the Commissioner's security of tenure—it is an important point—and of the need not only to ensure but to demonstrate his independence, particularly given events a little while ago.

Peter Bottomley

Is it not right that the fuller answer to my hon. Friend is that it is tougher, in that a majority of the Standards and Privileges Committee would be required to pass a motion, and only after that could the resolution be considered by the House?

Peter Hain

Indeed; I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

The third motion puts in place the proposals of the House of Commons Commission on the terms of appointment of future Parliamentary Commissioners for Standards and, as the commission recommended, modifies the basis of the appointment of the current Commissioner so as to bring it in line with these.

Paragraph (a) provides for all future appointments to be for a fixed term of five years, and to be nonrenewable. Paragraph (b) provides for the appointment of the present Commissioner, which currently runs for three years from 13 February 2002 and is renewable, to run for five years from the date of this debate—that is, to 25 June 2008—and to be non-renewable. The Wicks committee had recommended that future appointments should be for a non-renewable fixed term, set by the House, of between five and seven years. The commission feels that five years strikes a reasonable balance between giving the Commissioner the opportunity to establish and develop his or her role, and allowing for a fresh approach from time to time.

The proposals to improve the Commissioner's security of tenure and to make the appointment for a fixed term and non-renewable, comprise a package that is designed to reinforce both the reality and the public perception of the Commissioner's independence.

I understand that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Philip Mawer, has agreed to the proposed modifications of his terms and conditions of employment and is willing to serve the House for a further five years, and I am most grateful to him for that commitment. I take the opportunity to acknowledge the wisdom, assiduity and independence of mind that Sir Philip has demonstrated in his service to date.

The Wicks committee has taken the view that there should be primary legislation to define the post of Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards as an office-holder, appointed and paid for, but not employed by, the House. The Government are not convinced that there is a need to introduce legislation in this area—we believe that the measures that it is hoped that the House will agree today should be sufficient to ensure the independence of the Commissioner—but of course we remain willing to consider the case for legislation, should a clear need emerge.

I take the opportunity, in concluding, to apologise to the House for the fact that I must depart early from the debate—I should stress, to attend to my duties as Leader of the House.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Oh good.

Peter Hain

I said that just for the right hon. Gentleman's benefit. However, my very capable deputy, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), will be here to wind up the debate, and if it continues for a long period I shall return to House. I commend the three motions to the House.

2.57 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate and to commend the report of my Committee, the Standards and Privileges Committee, to the House. I begin by thanking the Leader of the House for his kind words about the work of my Committee and his constructive response to the recommendations that we have made.

Our business this afternoon has its roots in the report of the Wicks committee, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was published last November. This is actually the third occasion on which that Committee has reported on our standards, and the particular trigger this time was the circumstances, towards the end of 2001, that surrounded the decision to hold an open competition to fill the post of Commissioner, rather than automatically reappoint the present Commissioner's predecessor. I quite understand that that warranted a fresh look at our procedures.

As the Leader of the House said, we are all grateful to the Wicks committee for its continuing interest in the House's arrangements for maintaining standards. It is right that our system of regulation is open to critical, independent and professional review, and that can only help enhance public confidence in our arrangements. It is good that Sir Nigel Wicks was able to write in his covering letter to the Prime Minister that

following the publication of the First Report in 1995, real progress has been made in establishing and enforcing high standards of conduct". However, we must never be complacent, and I agree wholeheartedly with what Sir Nigel said when he said that one or two serious cases of misconduct can lead to disproportionate loss of public confidence, not only in individual Members but in the House of Commons as an institution. Such a loss of confidence is in the interests of none of us here today; indeed, it damages the democratic process.

Therefore both the Commissioner and my Committee are placing an increased emphasis on information and training, to help hon. Members to comply with the rules, thus minimising the scope for damaging breaches. We have also suggested changes to make some of the rules relating to allowances more explicit and more effective.

The thrust of the eighth report is threefold: first, to strengthen the independence of the Commissioner; secondly, to enhance the perceived neutrality of my Committee; and, thirdly, to improve and clarify the regulatory process. The Wicks committee's stated aim was to deliver public confidence in the House, while carrying the confidence of the House itself. To do that, the committee made 27 recommendations, all but one of them addressed to the House—the last one being addressed to the Government, to which the Leader of the House has referred. I endorse the preference of the Wicks committee for implementation through internal mechanisms of the House, such as Standing Orders, rather than through legislation.

In its own report, my Committee has given careful consideration to each of the recommendations that the Wicks committee addressed to the House. As I said a moment ago, we share the same aims and objectives, so it is not surprising that we therefore recommend acceptance of the substance of the vast majority of the Wicks committee recommendations. Where we have felt unable to follow the precise terms of its recommendations, we have, wherever possible, proposed alternatives to achieve the same objectives, but in a way that we think does so more effectively. Wicks's overall assessment of the proposal that my Committee has made in its report is that it will be a significant improvement on the current arrangements". The House will be grateful for that endorsement.

The Wicks committee report was published in the context of an ongoing programme, with the Commissioner and the Committee working in tandem. Following a revision of the code and the guide, approved by the House in May last year, a completely new register was published in December 2002, with a much sharper focus than in the past and reflecting the more vigorous registration requirements to which the House had agreed. The Commissioner expects to initiate a more comprehensive review of the code later this year, the outcome of which will be considered by the committee.

The Commissioner has also, with the Committee's encouragement and approval, published procedural guidance for Members and other guidance, such as a comprehensive media strategy, which is to be followed, later this summer, by guidance on how frivolous or vexatious complaints will be handled. Pending the review of the code, a number of the Wicks recommendations have been given effect through such practice notes. Likewise, we have given effect to other recommendations, which may be formalised when the guide to the rules is next revised—probably early in the next Parliament, given that it is only a year since the House approved the last major revision.

One of the Wicks committee's key recommendations, which is designed to improve the fairness with which Members are investigated, is the proposed establishment of an investigatory panel. That proposal was designed to deal with cases—they are expected to arise only infrequently—that in the opinion of my Committee met two criteria: first, proof of the complaint would be likely to lead to the imposition of a serious penalty on the Member; and, secondly, that there appeared to be significant contested areas of fact that would not be properly decided unless the Member was given the opportunity to call witnesses and/or cross-examine other witnesses.

My Committee was sympathetic to the aims of that recommendation, but had a number of concerns about the details, not least that it left the Commissioner with neither an obvious role in establishing the facts, nor an opportunity to express an opinion on whether they point to a breach of the code. We have therefore proposed an alternative approach for those circumstances, which we hope are rare, where the Commissioner would sit with two assessors—one legally qualified, the other a Member of the House nominated by the Speaker. However, the Commissioner would retain sole responsibility for reporting the facts to the Committee and for expressing an opinion on whether the code had been breached. The proposed new Standing Order paragraphs (2B) to (2H) would give effect to that.

We believe that that approach will meet the Wicks committee's objectives, while maintaining the centrality of the Commissioner's role in investigating complaints. As I said earlier, those arrangements are designed to be used only in the most serious and most difficult cases, and it remains the intention of both the Committee and the Commissioner that our existing procedures should be used to handle the vast majority of cases.

Another difference of view between my Committee and the Wicks committee is over taking evidence in public. My Committee understands the arguments for taking evidence in public, as is indeed the norm for most Select Committees. However, it considers that there are compelling practical arguments, to which we refer in paragraphs 44 to 47 of the annexe to our report, against taking evidence in public in standards cases. So we have no plan to change our present practice in that respect, but we shall, of course, continue our present practice with regard to publishing our reports of the evidence that we have taken, whether in public or in private.

The Wicks committee once again raised the issue of whether the House should introduce financial penalties, without suspension, as a sanction for breaching the code. As the Leader of the House has just said, to do so would give the House greater flexibility over the range of penalties that it could impose, and a financial penalty could be imposed on a Member without depriving his or her constituents of their representation in the House—a consequence of suspension about which concern has been expressed in the past.

My Committee has recommended that the House should have an additional power to impose on a Member who is found to have breached the code a specific penalty of withholding salary for a specified period. As the Leader of the House said, when we published our report, it was unclear whether legislation was needed. I understand it is not needed. Indeed, Standing Order No. 45A provides the framework for withholding the salaries of suspended Members. I hope that the House will agree that that will be a useful addition to its armoury in dealing with breaches of the code.

The Wicks committee made a number of proposals for change in the composition of the Committee, designed, in its view, to strengthen public perceptions of its independence. The effect of the proposed changes would be to prevent any party holding an overall majority on the Committee, to make it a requirement that the Chairman be drawn from the Opposition parties and to exclude Parliamentary Private Secretaries from membership.

I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Committee for the way it works. My firm view is that, when Members enter Committee Room 13, they leave behind in the Committee Corridor their party affiliations. A fly on the wall would find it impossible to deduce party affiliations from the contributions that Members make. It is a matter of considerable pride to me that our key decisions are always unanimous.

I should like to pay a particular tribute to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) for the distinguished contribution that he has made to our work. His recent departure, to concentrate on his valuable work as Chairman of the Liaison Committee and as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, was a serious loss to my Committee, the impact of which has been, I am pleased to say, significantly offset by the welcome appointment of the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) in his place. I understand that we may also lose the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), one of the Committee's longest serving members. Again, I thank him for his significant contribution to our work. I wish him well in his new post as PPS to a Secretary of State.

Despite our confidence that the present arrangements work well, my colleagues and I have none the less concluded that, in the interests of public perception of the Committee's independence, the House should go along with those three recommendations from the Wicks committee. In this area, perception is almost as strong as reality. I am grateful to the Government for clearly endorsing them today, as some aspects break new ground, particularly that relating to party balance. Although they are not being enshrined in the Standing Orders on this occasion, I hope that, with experience of their operation, the Government may feel able to do so on a future occasion.

The Wicks committee also made a number of recommendations designed to strengthen the position of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the current Commissioner, Sir Philip Mawer, for the way in which he carries out his duties. He came to the task in difficult circumstances, at a time when confidence in our self-regulatory arrangements had been dented by the circumstances surrounding the departure of his predecessor. He has worked hard both to re-establish confidence and, with the Committee, to build a fresh approach to standards enforcement that places a significantly greater emphasis on education and prevention. His first annual report is expected to be made to the House shortly, and it will put into the public domain more information about the work of his office than ever before. I hope that that will also enhance the accountability, both to the House and to the public, for his stewardship of his role.

The proposals regarding the Commissioner's security of tenure, terms and period of office and the resourcing of his office are principally matters for the House of Commons Commission, rather than for my Committee—and I see three House of Commons Commissioners in the Chamber this afternoon. We are grateful to the House of Commons Commission for its willingness to provide whatever resources are needed to enable the Commissioner to do his job properly, and we support the proposals on security of tenure and on the terms and conditions of the Commissioner's appointment that will be put to the House shortly.

In recent months, some sections of the press have commented on an apparent lack of activity on the part of the Committee. To our critics, that is evidence that the system is ineffective. I think that fewer reports of Members behaving badly is good news rather than bad news. Indeed, I hope that the approach of both the Commission and the Committee of putting a greater emphasis on education and prevention will, over time, result in fewer Members finding themselves in breach of the code and will promote yet higher standards of conduct. We will, however, continue to seek to deal firmly with cases of proven breaches of the rules.

I believe that our system of self-regulation is effective in ensuring that high standards of conduct are the norm in the House and that those who fail to meet them are punished appropriately. The Wicks committee concluded that standards are generally high and that the overwhelming majority of Members seek to, and, in practice, do uphold standards of propriety. The Committee and the Commissioner are seeking to ensure through enhanced openness about the procedures, while maintaining confidentiality in the handling of individual cases, that public confidence in our arrangements is enhanced. The changes that the House is being invited to make today, on the recommendations of my Committee, should also act to enhance public confidence. I commend them and my Committee's report to the House.

3.10 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I suppose that I should start by making a kind of declaration of interest. I was a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee in the previous Parliament, and I am currently a member of the House of Commons Commission. I therefore have a direct interest in and relevance to today's proceedings. I hope that if my comments are brief—unusually brief by my standards, some might say—that will in no way indicate a lack of interest on my part or a lack of importance attached to the issues. On this occasion, happily, I am in a position to endorse not only what the Leader of the House said but what my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee said. It is obvious from their comments that a lot of thought has been put into this matter on behalf of the House by the Government and in particular by the Committee, and I am more than happy, on behalf of Her Majesty's official Opposition, to endorse what has already been said.

I want to quote from the second report of the Standards and Privileges Committee, which sums up the dilemma that faced Members of the House following the Wicks committee report. Paragraph 5 on page 6 states: The Wicks Committee rightly recognises that the system for regulating standards of conduct must be consistent with constitutional principles, including the need to ensure that Parliament remains free to regulate its own affairs without executive or judicial interference. This collection of related rights and immunities is essential if Parliament is to be able effectively to discharge its responsibilities as the nation's legislature on behalf of the people; the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege asserted as 'axiomatic' the inclusion of the responsibility of each House for disciplining its own members. That illustrates rather well the assertion and the principle in which I firmly believe—because Members of this House are individually accountable to their electorates, and because the House as a whole is therefore very much accountable to voters, there is always an ultimate check and sanction on Members way above anything that any committee can bring to bear. I hope that that is very much borne in mind by those who consider what is said in the House today and the approach that we take. Of course it is right that we constantly examine and re-examine our mechanisms to satisfy ourselves that they work properly, and of course it is right, as we are doing today, that we respond to recommendations such as those that Wicks brought forward. Equally, it is right that we assert ultimately what is set out so eloquently and succinctly in that paragraph—it is for us to judge, knowing that in the end we are accountable to our voters, as few others are, whether they be on elevated committees or even, dare I say it, in the press. I hope that we are able to make that important distinction.

Having said that, I would like to welcome very much the Government's response to some of the quite tricky recommendations that emerged both from Wicks and from my right hon. Friend's Committee. I pay tribute to the Leader of the House and to the Government for accepting some of those recommendations, not least those regarding the composition of the Committee, which in its own way is groundbreaking, and the Leader of the House's undertaking about the chairmanship of the Committee. It is appropriate in that regard to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for demonstrating that having a Committee of the House chaired by a distinguished member of the Opposition is not only something that can be made to work but made to work very satisfactorily, and can add to the perception of the effectiveness, impartiality and independence of the Committee. In addition, in relation to the no doubt painful recommendations about the role of Parliamentary Private Secretaries in the Committee, I can attest to the fact that, as my right hon. Friend said, the way in which the Standards and Privileges Committee has worked—certainly in the previous Parliament, and I have no reason to doubt that the same has been the case in this—has been consensual. There has been no evidence that I ever saw of partiality by members of the Committee. Nevertheless, on this occasion, we are right to take the view that perception, in this area perhaps above all others, is of vital importance, and that we take such steps as are seen to be necessary to reassure members of the public that this Committee, with the vital role that it plays in our business, is above and beyond any reproach, which I believe that it is and will continue to be.

All in all, while the Wicks committee did invaluable work, and it has rightly caused us to re-examine our position and our procedures in this matter, we have taken a responsible and robust view of what it said. What has been recommended and what the Government have said in response will bear examination and will ultimately enhance the reputation of the House. There is some evidence that that is already happening and, without rehearsing all the details again, what my right hon. Friend said is significant in that the number of complaints—let us remember that they are mainly from the public—has been dramatically reduced over the past year or two, which I hope indicates that matters in this important area are improving and will continue to improve, supported by the mechanisms that these resolutions today will put in place. I warmly recommend them to the House. I support them and I hope that the House will do so too.

3.17 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I wish not only to reiterate in precise terms what the shadow Leader of the House said about our accountability to the electorate, which it is important to rehearse, but to say how disappointed I am that the House is not full to hear him not only congratulate the Government but thank them. When the House was fuller, earlier in the day, I am sure that he would have found a different reaction. It is an almost unique occasion—I am sure that we should all relish this moment—and we will make sure that it is given prominence in future.

In common with several other Members present today, I gave evidence to the Wicks committee. I certainly do not want to rehearse all the issues that the committee considered, but I would like to say, as the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee has said, what a thorough job it did on our behalf. There is value in someone from outside the parliamentary building and the ethos of this place looking at our procedures and testing them against other criteria. I also endorse the points that the Chairman of the Committee made at the end of his speech with which I agree entirely.

This area raises important issues, which the Wicks committee and the subsequent discussions in the Committee and the Commission have underlined. Is the system for self-regulation of the House by the House sufficiently robust? Does it provide sufficient reassurance to the electorate to enhance and restore confidence in parliamentary integrity? Is it sufficiently even-handed to provide natural justice for those alleged to have infringed the code of conduct while also ensuring that justice is done and seen to be done?

I pay tribute to both the Committee and the Commissioner. There has been a steady and substantial improvement on all those counts in recent months, both in performance and perception. That is largely due to the fact that we had a fresh approach by new people, including, of course, the new Chairman and the new Commissioner. If this debate had taken place 18 months ago, it would have been extremely controversial. I guess that not only would the Galleries have been full but the House would have been full. The improvements that have taken place over that period are, if I may put it this way, a tribute to the new regime. It can also be said that there is much to commend in the guide and code improvements of 2002.

That does not mean that there might not be dangers in the future. Several witnesses drew it to the attention of the Wicks committee that the tit-for-tat period in the run-up to the general election was a real problem. Often spurious accusations against Members were made by Members of other parties, which were carefully timed to seek publicity for the complaint, in the knowledge that they would take time to feed through the system and, therefore, the result—probably, if not always, clearance and dismissal—would come after polling day. That affected hon. Members of all parties and did no credit to the House of Commons.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

Recommendation 7 of the Wicks report says: The Guide to the Rules should be amended to set out clearly the means by which the Committee on Standards and Privileges would deal with frivolous or vexatious complaints. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that we should take a much sterner line on vexatious complaints and introduce penalties for those who undertake such complaints? If he is, I agree with him.

Mr. Tyler

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I am glad to find support for the view in the House and I suspect that it might be shared among all parties.

I want to give a specific example, and I hope that the Chairman of the Committee and the Commissioner will take it seriously. I am aware of a Member against whom a set of accusations was made, some of which were endorsed by a Member of another party who had designs on nomination to the constituency that the first Member represents. It took more than six months to clear the complaints, so an enormous amount of work was hanging over that Member during the whole process and he was distracted from his duties in the House. Such a situation could be damaging to a Member's work in certain circumstances. I understand that the Commissioner has cleared the Member of all the complaints, with his usual excellent care and consideration, but the process took six months.

I entirely endorse the point made by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) that, in such circumstances, it should be open to the Commissioner to recommend to the Committee that action be taken. That action should be known to the House, and perhaps publicised more widely so that we would discourage such complaints because Members of all parties may suffer. The situation is especially likely in the run-up to a general election, so now is the time to take action. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support and I hope that he was speaking on behalf of his party because that might be substantially helpful as we discuss the matter.

My colleagues and I entirely agree with the suggestion in the first motion that the Committee should be able to recommend a salary penalty. We accept the Leader of the House's argument that other concerns such as the requirement for an Opposition Member to chair the Committee could be dealt with more appropriately in the way suggested rather than being a Standing Order requirement, as at the moment. We, like other hon. Members, note the Government's commitment that that would be their "firm intention"—I think that that was the Leader of the House's expression.

With regard to the third motion, I understand the Leader of the House's point that at this stage it is difficult to know whether it is necessary to make changes to the Commissioner's role by statute. I agree with him because, for goodness' sake, we should avoid bringing such measures through the House with the full legislative panoply. I am sure that he appreciates that time is precious.

I think that all the other matters in the third motion reflect the Commission's views. Unlike other participants in the debate, I have no official status because I am a member of neither the Commission nor the Committee. Thank goodness for that, because it is the last thing that I would want—I am glad that the matter is in the capable hands of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). The Commission has agreed to recommendations 20, 21, 22 and 24 of the Wicks committee.

While addressing the second motion, I wish to follow the sequence of the excellent explanatory memorandum. I note that the Leader of the House quoted from it extenso—if that is the right word—and rightly so, because the House's explanatory memoranda are so good that they are generally much better than the motions, let alone the Bills.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

In extenso.

Mr. Tyler

In extenso. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his correction.

All the measures make good sense, including the amendments to Standing Orders Nos. 149 and 150. I was slightly worried when it sounded like the Leader of the House and the Chairman of the Committee were giving way somewhat on the need for independent legal advice. I noted that one of the Wicks committee's key conclusions was: to deliver public confidence now, the post of Commissioner alone is an insufficient representation of an independent or external element in the House's system of regulation. I do not think that we have heard the last of that. Although the move on the investigative sub-committee procedures is perfectly acceptable, we might need to return to the issue if there is insufficient perception of independence.

I have no problem with paragraphs (2B), (2C) and (2D) of the motion because they are perfectly sensible. Paragraphs (2E), (2F) and (2G) also hang together and follow through perfectly well. Paragraph (2H) will just provide that we should receive an annual report.

My only worry is a matter to which the Leader of the House referred that should nevertheless be given greater prominence at this time on a Thursday afternoon: the ministerial code. I hope that it will be taken seriously within government. I recall raising the issue during a debate on a specific case. I welcome the Leader of the House's assurance that the ministerial code will shortly be published again in its revised form. The full co-operation of Members of the Government with the official process of the House and a system of full disclosure must be axiomatic and at the centre of things. The Leader of the House has given us an assurance, and we heard from the reply to the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) that the Prime Minister will be the policeman of the process. However, he—or she—will be an interested party, so I would want to ensure that the Committee is entirely happy with the arrangement. It might wish to return to the matter if there is a problem.

The ministerial code is something of a shadowy document and might not be quite as sufficient as the impression that has been given. There is an important question about special advisers and political advisers who report to Ministers, although that is a subject for another day's debate. I hope that Leader of the House's personal verbal reassurance this afternoon will be reiterated by the Prime Minister in public, together with a published new document that takes full account of the recommendations.

3.28 pm
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

I served on the Standards and Privileges Committee and left after the appointment of Sir Philip Mawer. I made it plain that that was in no sense a protest against him. It was the result of what I regarded as deficiencies in the treatment by the House of the former Commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin. Sir Philip is considering an issue in relation to me. I do not want to hide the fact that I might be the subject of a formal complaint, which may get reported at some stage, but I do not want to go into details because it might be prejudicial one way or the other.

Two parts of the way in which we got into this are worth recalling. The eighth report by the Wicks committee was a result of Sir Nigel's response to a letter I sent saying that, in my view, there was unhappiness in the House. The response by the Government and the Standards and Privileges Committee to the report by the Wicks committee is good.

In particular, I support the adaptation of the Wicks recommendation that the Commissioner, with two assessors, should be able to take forward significant disputes of fact. I am less happy about the cross-questioning of witnesses, in part because my experience started with the al-Fayed and Hamilton case. If the two of them had had the chance of knocking spots off each other, there would have been more new designs than Tate Modern could put on the side of a river cruiser. Experience will show how often that procedure is used and what the results will be.

The second genesis of the arrangements is that we now have a system under which complaints can be considered rather than leaving them up to the interests of the press. I pay tribute to the role of the press in sucking up all the dirt and trying to decide which bits matter, but on the whole it is not the best way of settling matters of fact. The existence of the role of the Commissioner and the way in which the job has been fulfilled by Sir Gordon Downey, Elizabeth Filkin and Sir Philip Mawer is a tribute to each holder of that post. I observe that two of the holders have been knighted; the reason for the middle holder of the post not being knighted cannot simply be that she is not a man. Her career was interrupted by the way we treated her and, given her public service, I commend, in public and in private, that the Prime Minister's office find a way of remedying what I regard as an extra deficiency.

If I look back over my experience, I can come up with two issues that might have gone to a Commissioner. One, which did not receive a great deal of publicity, was when someone thought that our late colleague, Jocelyn Cadbury, had been involved in nefarious dealings with drugs, and that so had I. He was dead; I was not. About half the British press camped outside a motel in Basingstoke, waiting for me to come along with the loot to exchange for illegal substances. When eventually it turned out that some juvenile had managed to put together a couple of links in "Who's Who" and had lived very nicely in the motel at the expense of a number of television companies and newspaper groups, I wondered what would have happened had that been a proper accusation rather than a "Ha, ha, ha. Look how the media have been misled by a junior fraudster."

There are difficulties. If a complaint is made against a Member of Parliament, it puts us in the position of having to disprove something. That is why I commend our present procedures, which look into questions of fact and consider whether there is sufficient evidence, on the face of it, to justify an investigation by the Commissioner and to put a Member of Parliament to the inconvenience of responding to questions.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Does the hon. Gentleman think that we could change the titles of the reports? The list of titles at the back of the Standards and Privileges Committee report acts to re-echo the accusations that were made. Those accusations were sometimes not proven or even dismissed, yet named individuals are still included in the titles. Once a matter has been dealt with, it might be helpful to refer to those reports without referring to the Member of Parliament by name.

Peter Bottomley

That is a generous thought. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee and the Commissioner can consider that.

I have dealt with the need for the Commissioner to determine whether there is a degree of fact, or apparent fact, before a formal investigation can start. I commend that approach to the media.

The second example from my past was when I took up the case of a black social worker in my constituency who suffered from the actions of a branch union official, who threw him out of the union without due process. After a year and a half, the union determined the case in the social worker's favour, so my representations led to justice. However, because of that union official, whom I consider a bad person, and a sad local councillor—I am going back some years—many parts of the media took the view that allegations that I had taken children from a home in my constituency to parties in Brighton were worth investigation. At the last moment, that led to interviews with me and to a newspaper report, which in effect said, "Minister in sex case row". I was a Minister; there was no sex case; there was no row.

On advice from someone with much experience in journalism, I said in simple terms: "It is not true. I did not do it. I shall sue." I then checked that the media understood that all those words had one syllable and were therefore capable of comprehension. Sadly, the thing had been printed and it led to lawyers earning a fair amount of money, although it was resolved before court.

That kind of accusation falls between criminal activity, which the Commissioner and Wicks systems do not look into, and inappropriate behaviour by a Member of Parliament. At times, there will be pressure to discover whether we are performing our constituency duties in a proper way. I would probably be failed on that quite often but, on other issues, many of us do not have a great deal to fear if we respond appropriately to questions that the Commissioner may ask when deciding whether a complaint needs to be looked into.

The eighth report of the Wicks committee was necessary. If I wrote such a report, I would not recommend the convention that the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee should be a member of the Opposition. Robert Sheldon's chairmanship of the Committee illustrates that point. However, if there is a general view that a non-Government Member should chair the Committee, so be it. I accept what the Leader of the House said about it not being necessary to write that into Standing Orders—it will be fine if Members abide by the convention.

We can put behind us issues arising from the way in which the second Commissioner was treated, although they will be recorded in the history books. There are a number of unexplained things, and there is a delicacy in the report by the House of Commons Commission that I will not embarrass Members by pointing out. The Commission's words may be literally true, but the word "not" could be inserted and they would still be true.

Together, the House, the Commissioner, the House of Commons Commission and the Wicks Committee have managed further to correct things that have already improved the situation, and I, too, commend the proposals before the House this afternoon.

3.36 pm
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas)

This has been an interesting, constructive and important debate.

I wish to start by commending two Members who cannot be with us today. My opposite number, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), cannot be with us because of illness. I spoke to him yesterday about the debate, and I hope that he recovers and is back with us as soon as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) was commended in one of the reports for his ability to divorce his two roles—as a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges and as a parliamentary private secretary. He has reinforced that commendation by giving his apologies for not attending today's debate—he thought that it would be inappropriate for him to do so. I am pleased, as I know all members of the Committee are, that there was no implication whatsoever that his role was why the decision on dual function, which the Government support, was made. As a former Whip, I can testify to my hon. Friend's independence during the period in which he served on the Committee.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for explaining the Committee's views. As ever, he dealt with those matters with clarity and even-handedness. When preparing for this debate with the excellent support, as I have already said, of departmental officials, I discovered that the right hon. Gentleman has been a Member of Parliament for many more years than I have been out of school, so it is with humility that I attempt to uphold the standards of the House of Commons in the role that I have been given.

May I comment on the intended convention that an Opposition Member should chair the Committee? The convention already works in the Public Accounts Committee, and the proposals in the report will be strengthened by the commitment of Members on both sides of the House to even-handed membership of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, with members drawn from all the main parties.

Peter Bottomley

I hope that the convention will not be applied too rigorously so that if for some reason the Chairman cannot attend, a Government Member cannot chair the meeting.

Mr. Woolas

I think that everybody would endorse that—I certainly would. I referred to the experience of the current Chairman; the previous Chairman was a Member of Parliament before I was born and, as my neighbour in Oldham, often referred to me as "the young lad". As has already been said, the impartiality of Lord Sheldon's chairmanship was never questioned. Perhaps we should all hope that in future the political affiliation of the Chair will not matter, and that if the convention and the Committee work as we hope, we will not have to worry about that.

Everybody is aware of the need for impartiality and the need to be seen to be impartial. That is part of the Committee's remit. One of the strengths of the Committee and of the Wicks report was that they looked outwards from this place as much as inwards in order to achieve one of their main tasks—to ensure public confidence in the proceedings of the House.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood), who represents the Commission, for his comments. It is useful for all concerned that there is unanimity from that source as well. All hon. Members will be grateful for that.

The hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) raised the matter of the tenure of the Commissioner. I make clear the Government's view that there should be no implied criticism of the previous Commissioner, whose devotion to public service is recognised. We have noted the comments that have been made. I emphasise that the restriction of the tenure to one term of office of five years, which is the term that the Commission recommended, ensures the perception of impartiality and overcomes the possible accusation—not that members of the press would imply such a thing—that favour might be curried in the House. That, of course, is not the case.

Like my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, I thank the shadow Leader of the House. We are attempting to move forward with consensus. We have not closed our minds to the argument for legislation, which the Wicks committee recommended, but we believe that it is not necessary. I put on record the fact that we have an open mind about that.

The Government believe that the Committee on Standards and Privileges and the Commission have recommended a sensible way forward and responded positively to the recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I ask the House to support the motion and the motions that follow.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House takes note of the Eighth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (Cm. 5663), the Response to that Report by the House of Commons Commission (HC 422), and the Second Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (HC 403); and agrees with the recommendation in paragraph 50 of that Report that, in appropriate cases, the House should impose a penalty of withholding a Member's salary for a specified period without suspending the Member.